In praise of Parish Councils

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This is a rather unfocussed post, but I just wanted to give a shout-out for Parish Councils.

One of our number here at LDV Towers, Mark Valladares, writes a blog called Liberal Bureaucracy. One of its main subjectival strands is Mark’s role as a parish councillor. Just leafing through some of the post titles gives one an excellent flavour of parish council life:

Creeting St Peter: the importance of a neatly trimmed bush…

Suffolk’s Parish councillors meet – nobody dead…

Catch the bus, if you can…

Creeting St Peter: rushing headlong into the 21st century…

I could have picked on many parish councillor blogs as an illustration, so please excuse me for just picking on Mark’s blog as a “for instance”.

My point is that there are thousands of parish councillors in the country. Often it is regarded that parish councils do very little apart from the odd bit of “tarting up” of the community environment.

But, there are many parish councillors and parish clerks, who work extremely hard, putting in very long hours, having their lives taken over by parish business, thinking about very little else often throughout the day and night.

Often parish councils have little resources (for example, no employees or clerk) and parish councillors have to do things like type out minutes and agendas, and put agendas up on noticeboards.

Although most parish councils are not Political or even political, there are often understandable challenges caused by often random sets of people from disparate backgrounds working together.

So, anyway, in short, I take my Wednesday hat off to all parish councils!

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • John Marriott 14th Feb '18 - 2:25pm

    Yes, let’s hear it for Parish Councils, often, but not always the unsung and often much maligned heroes of local government. I spent a total of 24 years on one, as well as a good number of years on County and District Councils (and I only ever got voted on once!) The trouble is that there are basically three types of Parish Council : the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive.

    When I joined it in 1987 mine was teetering on the Reactive and don’t you believe it being non political, at least only if you take it that being a conservative at this level is non political. Not long after I joined, we once spent what seemed like most of one meeting discussing, and failing to agree, where on the wall of the Council Chamber to hang the cuckoo clock that had been gifted to us by our twin town council in the Black Forest!

    However, with the arrival of a few new faces, mainly Lib Dems as it turned out, things started to look up. The 1990s saw the Town Council introduce a Housing Needs Survey, whose findings paved the way for the building of affordable housing, a new Town Cemetery and the acquisition of more open spaces and play equipment. And let’s not forget the CCTV cameras at strategic points in the town, and a few new pedestrian crossings and bus shelters as well. Later came new Council offices and a new Community Hub from where library services are now provided thanks to volunteers. The council achieved Quality Council status some ten years ago. Given the rapid expansion of the town (3000+ houses in 1987 to over 6000 today) things needed to be done, despite the usual critics (who tended to wear blue rosettes).

    IF we ever get Unitaries in Lincolnshire councils like mine may get the chance to take on more powers, assuming that their members have the vision to make it happen. Unfortunately there are still too many parish councils who still only pay lip service to the idea of innovation and prefer just to play it safe.

  • Declaration of Interest: I am currently Clerk to a PC, and have been to two others in the past.
    I think the most important point is that PCs vary hugely – from tiny parishes of 200 residents and £1,500 budgets to town councils of 50,000+ and big budgets. And some parishes don’t really want anything other than a sleepy PC!
    The second point I would like to make is that the increasingly stringent legal framework – transparency, data protection, compulsory websites etc etc etc – will mean that recruiting councillors, and especially clerks, becomes more and more difficult.

  • Interesting ! I had been doing a bit of research into parish councils in our part of the world. After all, we are the party who believe in localism and community politics and with parish councils taking on more responsibility it seemed appropriate to try and get some of our members involved in PCs, possibly as a prelude to the member going on to bigger things.
    What I found out (and I appreciate some of you probably know this already) surprised me. And not in a good way. I was surprised how many parish councillors are co-opted. Most local PCs have co-opted members and some have a majority of members who were “elected” in such a manner. When a casual vacancy arises an election is rare, possibly because the local electors, who probably don’t even know there is a vacancy, have but a few days to get the 10 signatures required for an election to be called. Many PCs don’t actually like elections as they are paid for out of the parish budget.
    As a consequence, the co-opted are often friends and neighbours of existing council lord or spouses of district/borough councillors. Some parish councillors belong to more than one PC, or are paid councillors elsewhere.
    Although officially “independent”, we all know who the Tories and kippers are, so why the pretence ?
    Now none of this would really matter if these people weren’t spending our money. Parish councils are a good idea in theory, but they must be promoted so that we actually get proper democratic elections. Similarly, there must be an assumption that a casual vacancy will trigger an election and that co-option is the very last resort. I have it on good authority that some who are interested in serving are not willing to stand at election time, but they know they can get in as co-opted members, with a word in the right ear, soon after. I appreciate there may be places where the system works well, but I would suggest that in others there may be a democratic deficit.

  • I won’t argue with the insight and experiences of others with Parish Councils in other parts of the country – but in the places I’ve lived, I’d best describe them as powerless and unaccountable. I don’t think its generalising to say that next to nobody has any idea whatsoever about what their functions are and who it is they’ve actually voted for (if they’ve even voted at all) – and that isn’t democratic.

  • John Marriott 15th Feb '18 - 8:49am

    The ones you describe would be what I termed the Inactive ones – and there are, sadly, far too many of them. However, if (and it’s a big ‘if’, I know) you can get the right people on them, and if they handle their publicity intelligently, Parish/Town Councils can be game changers in their area. Lots of ‘ifs’ I’m afraid; but please don’t dismiss them out of hand. After all, that’s where many ‘successful’ Lib Dem councillors got started. If we ever do get a Unitary Authority England the possibly ensuing democratic deficit requires pro activity at this level of local government.

  • Chris Cory – There are rules about advertising casual vacancies locally and on websites so not knowing about one is no excuse. Most people don’t know about any local election timetables at all despite the best efforts of some principle councils. Automatically triggering an election won’t make a difference if the resulting candidate is ‘elected’ unopposed. Your comment about parish councils not liking byelections because they have to pay for them is a bit unfair especially where the cost of the byelection is large in relation to the precept income. The parish council I am on has to keep £4000 sloshing around in the bank account just in case of a by election which is a rather large percentage of our precept income.

    No parish council is powerless. If the councillors don’t use their powers then they should be challenged. Ditto if they appear unaccountable.

    The party and ALDC could do a lot more to promote parish councils and Lib Dems should stand as Lib Dems. It is not unknown for candidates of all parties to stand under a party label at a principle council election and as an independent in a simultaneous parish election!

  • David Evershed 16th Feb '18 - 12:30am

    Because of the interaction between parish councils and the councils in the tiers above them, it is an excellent way to get to learn about the issues and what is involved – and thus get prepared for fighting elections in those district, county, unitary and borough councils.

  • Erlend Watson 16th Feb '18 - 6:51pm

    I think there is a size of parish below which even the most politicalof candidates might hesitate to wage political war while still being honest about where they are coming from. Were I standing in my home parish of Birsay (electorate ca 600) I might not wear a label. But I would admit my politics. Alas we don’t have parish councils in Scotland we have community councils which look like parish councils but are without the power and influence.

  • Simon Banks 2nd Apr '18 - 12:12pm

    I wouldn’t take a hat off to all of them. There are some excellent ones and of course a Liberal approach would be to drive more powers down to them. But at present, many parish councillors are elected unopposed and some of them take the opportunity to ignore their constituents. So if you have a parish council, stand for it!

  • Graeme Robertson 24th May '18 - 1:16pm

    I would not take my hat of to all of them either. A fair few are riddled with corruption and incompetence, and waste precept payers money on a grand scale. And they can do so with impunity because of lazy external auditors and the Localism act 2014 which helped to increase their lack of accountability.

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